By Sydney Shaw and Chelsea LoCascio
Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor
For years, only the rough outlines of Paul Loser Hall were known. In 1987, Tom Loser and his wife, Carol, donated a record-setting $1 million to the College, and in appreciation, the new building, which would house the Office of Admissions and the School of Nursing, Health and Exercise Science, was named after Tom’s father, Paul.
Fast forward nearly 20 years after the building’s dedication: This month, a team of six students unveiled their semester-long research into the history of Paul Loser, during which they uncovered documents that indicate the Trenton superintendent of schools from 1932 to 1955 actively opposed the desegregation of the region’s schools.
In the wake of the emergence of the documents, a newly formed group called the TCNJ Committee on Unity — a non-Student Government-recognized organization named after a civil rights group that formed in Trenton in the mid-1940s — has spearheaded a campaign to change the name of Paul Loser Hall.
In September, six students began an archival research project on the history of Trenton education, overseen by Robert McGreevey, a history professor at the College. They scoured the Trenton Public Library’s Trentoniana archive, as well as the Trenton Evening Times archive at the New Jersey State Library, for McGreevey’s 20th century Trenton history independent research course.
That’s where Kevin Moncayo, a senior history and psychology double major, found a letter written to Paul Loser from a doctor named Leroy Morris that lead to the discovery of far more than the team expected. In the letter, Morris asked Paul Loser to stop asking for his support for segregation, since he didn’t personally believe in the institution. Moncayo shared his findings with research teammates Tim Osborn, a senior physics major, and Chris Loos, a sophomore history major.
“This prompted us to look into why Loser might be trying to label someone as a supporter of segregation,” Osborn said.
Documents indicate that Loser fought to keep children of color in New Lincoln School, the district’s all-black school, even though Junior High School No. 2 was closer to the children’s homes. After this information came to light in McGreevey’s class, Osborn, Loos and Moncayo distributed flyers and petition sheets that called for Loser Hall’s name to change.
“Changing Loser’s name is the short-term goal, but in the long term, it’s hoped that (the TCNJ Committee on Unity)… will be sustained and able to bring students together across organizational lines to collaborate in action around social justice issues pertinent to the campus,” said Rosie Driscoll, a member of McGreevey’s research team and a junior history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major.
According to Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education, Trenton, NJ, parents Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams sued the Trenton Board of Education in 1943. Their children — Janet and Leon, respectively — lived only two blocks from Junior High School No. 2, but were, instead, forced to attend the all-black New Lincoln School.
Court documents state that New Lincoln School was significantly farther away than Junior No. 2, and the classes and resources it offered were far inferior. All of Janet and Leon’s white neighborhood peers were allowed to attend Junior No. 2 without resistance. In 1944, the case reached the New Jersey Supreme Court, where Paul Loser was called to testify. Trenton NAACP lawyer Robert Queen, who represented the parents, questioned Paul Loser on his role in assigning students to New Lincoln School.
In the context of history, Trenton’s school segregation might not seem too unscrupulous. After all, segregation was the norm across the country at the time. But in the case of Trenton and Paul Loser, segregation violated the district’s own written policy, as well as state law.
“The law states no child between the ages of 4 and 20 years shall be excluded from any public school on the grounds of his religion, nationality or color,” Queen told Loser during a hearing, according to the case files.
After Paul Loser acknowledged this fact, Queen continued his questioning.
“Aren’t both Leon Williams and Janet Hedgepeth excluded from Junior Two on the ground of color?” Queen said.
“Yes, in accordance with the policy and philosophy of education,” Paul Loser responded.
When Queen asked if separate schools should be set up “for such minority groups in the city as Italians, Poles, Jews, Hungarians, and Germans,” the elder Loser said that “he had not given this proposal any thought.”
The State Supreme Court ultimately sided with Queen, Hedgepeth and Williams, and the Court’s decision struck down segregation across the state. In 1991, the Trenton Board of Education changed the name of Junior High School No. 2 to Hedgepeth-Williams School to honor the mothers’ fight for equality.
“We think it clear that the children are unlawfully discriminated against. It is unlawful for Boards of Education to exclude children from any public school on the ground that they are of the negro race,” the New Jersey State Supreme Court wrote in its decision.
A decade later, the case was cited in a much more impactful case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, in which the Supreme Court struck down school segregation throughout the U.S.
Despite the legal defeat, documents show that Paul Loser continued to delay the integration of public schools in Trenton. In response to his reluctance, an organization known as the Trenton Committee for Unity (TCU) was formed in order to place additional pressure on the board. In late April 1945, upset parents began writing letters to Paul Loser and the board to decry the continued segregatory policies.
During the TCU’s administrative committee meeting that month, Paul Loser “maintain(ed) that the majority of colored parents wish their children to attend Lincoln School; that Negro Educators of the highest authority say that segregation in the junior high school period is best,” according to the meeting minutes.
“I find it egregious that a school that markets itself as an inclusive and — in many ways — progressive public institution has a building on campus in honor of a segregationist who would not have wanted a significant portion of our community to be here,” Driscoll said. “As someone who is fairly connected on campus and trained in grassroots organizing, I feel responsible for engaging in action to raise awareness and engage others in a campaign to change the name.”
College President R. Barbara Gitenstein addressed concerns through an email sent to the campus community on Thursday, Dec. 1.
“In the last two days, aspects of Dr. Paul Loser’s past have been brought into focus on campus. The information that was shared first in posters and later in news articles is due to the diligent archival research of several of our students,” the email reads. “Our students documented that he espoused beliefs that run counter to our commitment to an inclusive campus.”
Gitenstein wrote that she hopes to hold a campus presentation for students, faculty and staff to weigh in on the matter.
“TCNJ must be thoughtful in understanding the full historical context but forthright in confronting the facts,” she wrote. “We must decide what is the most productive plan of action when we learn that our campus has honored someone whose belief system is inconsistent with our mission, including building an inclusive community of learners.”
College spokesperson Dave Muha said such a meeting probably won’t be feasible until the spring semester begins in January.
“The conversation that we’re about to begin is not a debate about whether or not to change a building name,” Muha wrote in an email. “The dialog will be a sharing of what the students learned through their research, an opportunity to consider additional information, as appropriate, and a processing of what this means to us as a community.”